Post Author: Stephanie Sorge Wing
I can still feel a bit of burning embarrassment from the conversation that happened nearly 12 years ago. My dad, a pastor and theologian, helped me pack up and move all of my belongings from Massachusetts down to Louisville, where I was about to begin seminary. Somewhere in Pennsylvania, we somehow got on the subject of hot button issues at seminaries, and he mentioned the use of gendered language for God.
Many students came from traditions that held firmly to male images and language for God. Some prayers always began, “Father God…” My seminary, along with others, encouraged a more expansive use of language for God, engaging images that were more traditionally masculine and feminine or gender-neutral. Students would be encouraged to recognize and draw from the rich and expansive store of such language in the Bible. And for some students, that bordered on blasphemous – or even crossed the line.
The sting of embarrassment came for me as I remembered the application essays I had so carefully written and edited. My internal debate wasn’t whether or not I could use “he” to refer to God; it was whether the “h” should be capitalized. I had come from more conservative theological traditions, and most of what I had seen was God as He. At the same time, that capital letter seemed to thrust a masculine God at me in a way that just didn’t seem right. If asked, I would have said in a heartbeat that I didn’t believe that God is male. And yet, there it was, burned in my memory – repeated references to God with male pronouns in my first introduction to my future professors.
The conversation on language for God was not a new one, just one to which I had not yet been exposed. Beyond seminary, many students who learned to exercise care in their language went right back to the familiar and comfortable pronouns upon graduation. Others of us were serving in church contexts where throwing in feminine pronouns might have gotten us run out of the pulpit, so we at least avoided using masculine language. Given my own commitments, and recognizing the constraints of my context, that was my practice, though I occasionally and intentionally used female imagery with some gentle education.
In my current ministry context, this has been an ongoing conversation, and it’s a joy to draw from the wealth of images and language in worship. Even so, I find myself struggling with the pronouns. I still avoid he/his/him for God, but I don’t usually go to she/hers/her. Both seem limited, particularly as I recognize the problems of gender binarism. Especially in the church, those congregations that strive to be gender inclusive often refer to “men and women” or “sisters and brothers.” That language, which attempts inclusivity, instead highlights the lack of inclusivity for those who don’t fit in the either/or of male or female. Gender is far more nuanced than that. So alternating he/she pronouns for God doesn’t really help.
What if, instead, we were to use they/their/them pronouns for God? They are gender-neutral, and provide us pronouns, which can be very helpful in talking about God. Beyond that, perhaps they are more faithful to the nature of God, which is far beyond our grasping. One name frequently used for God in the Hebrew Bible is Elohim, which is a grammatically plural noun. In Genesis 1:26, God speaks, “Let us create humans in our image,” and in verse 27 we read that God created male and female in God’s image. Both genders – which I would expand to say all genders – are created in the image of God.
As Christians, we believe in a Triune God. The Trinity is a great mystery of the God who is One but also Three. While the language and theology of the Trinity is a whole other bag of worms, the use of they/their/them also invites us to contemplate the mystery of the Trinity more authentically.
Let’s look at one of the most well-known verses in the Bible, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” It is so familiar that it is jarring to hear the language altered, but we might paraphrase, “For God so loved the world that they gave their only Son, so that everyone who believes in them may not perish but may have eternal life.” How does this add to our appreciation for the Triune God? The incarnation, in which God became human to be united with us, emphasizes the choice made by all three members of the Trinity, which truly makes it a self-giving choice. It is a sacrifice shared by each member of the Trinity, too. And if one believes in the Son alone, but not the Triune God, that’s missing the whole point.
Furthermore, by using they/their/them language for God, would it not further emphasize that we are all created in God’s image – not just male and female? Neither humans nor God conform to the easy binary categories of he and she. Using they/their/them for God invites us to hold more space for our God who crosses the boundaries we create to divide, the God who is both transcendent and immanent, the God who will never fit in the boxes of our own creation.
Perhaps this language can invite our congregations into new ways of thinking about and worshipping the Triune God. I propose that we try it out for a season or more, to see where the Spirit might lead. Are you willing to come along for the journey?
Stephanie Sorge Wing serves the wonderful part of the body of Christ that gathers for worship and renewal at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Harrisonburg, VA. She trusts that the faculty of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary have long forgotten her application essays.